Reflections on an Icon

In Aesthetics II we’ve been studying Byzantine art. The students have found it strange, odd, even uncomfortable. This reaction is not unusual. Yet modern Eastern Orthodox Christians find those very same icons beautiful, heavenly, inspiring. What accounts for this vast difference of opinion?

The Virgin of Vladimir, or Theotokos (God Bearer) of Vladimir-12th Century tempera on panel, Constantinople

It is not the physical act of seeing that is different in the East, but there is a different “system” of looking and of interpretation. This system is imparted over time to Orthodox Christian children. If you grew up looking at the icons and mosaics and priestly garments, you too would (over time) conclude that it was good and normal and how it should be. Eastern Orthodox Christians have a system of visual cues and representations for worship that they believe to be Biblical and God-pleasing. Our Protestant forefathers in the U.S. did not agree, and thus the entire Orthodox visual aesthetic is absent from our churches.

Orthodox Christians invest a lot of meaning into their art. I asked the Aesthetics students, “Can you think of an art form here that is heavily invested with meaning by the viewer?” In other words, the viewer would have to have prior knowledge or special interest in order to derive satisfaction or inspiration from the art. Some answered that war memorials would qualify. The best answer was from Alli P., who noted that a stick figure drawing made by a child would hold great meaning for the child’s mother, even though a stranger might find the same drawing fuel for the campfire!

One thought here is that our perception of beauty…or our reception of art…is at least partially negotiable. We can train our tastes. We can learn to appreciate some things we at first do not like or find beautiful. Also, we should be careful not to train ourselves to like things we shouldn’t.

Another thought is that we do create in our minds systems of what looks “right.” Even if we do not share the ecclesiastical aesthetic of our Orthodox brethren, we have other systems. Not convinced? What about Christ- mastime? Do we not have a fairly settled idea of what “looks right” for Christmas? Many households have boxes of decorations, lights, and ornaments, and these are accompanied by seasonal aromas, music, clothing, desserts, and traditions. We might dislike the over-commercialization of the holiday, but there is no denying that the sights and sounds that overwhelm us remind us of Christmas.

When we think about it, there are other aesthetic systems we expect or strive for. We desire that workplaces, schools, theaters, restaurants, even car dealerships and gun shops look a certain way. We are very visual people! What if more of our aesthetics were deliberately God honoring? (And not in an emotional poster sort of way, but in a soaring Gothic sort of way?)

As a final thought, I would ask, Do any of our visual/aesthetic systems point us to God? Do we have anything in our lives that visually prompts us to consider our Lord? Fortunately, we have at least one:

“When I behold thine heavens, even the works of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, What is man, say I, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him?” Psalm 8:3-4 (Geneva Bible)

-Brian Turner, Headmaster